George Van Cleve, in his book, A Slaveholders’ Union, sadly distorts King’s speech:
“In his August 8 speech, King offered the slave states their choice of accepting the possibility of export taxes or accepting slave-trade limitations. While King was undoubtedly opposed to the slave trade, his approach strongly suggests that the Northern states were not interested in trying to prohibit the slave trade in the abstract, but instead saw it as part of the issue of central government control over international trade, which they believed should encompass all Southern trade as well as Northern trade.”
Van Cleve’s misinterpretation of King’s speech demonstrates the dangers inherent in approaching the debates with a conscious intention (as he explains in the Introduction) to narrow an examination’s “approach and goals.” In this case, he acknowledges that he intends to forego an examination of “the evolution of republican ideology” in order to concentrate on “understanding the political and economic processes that made it possible to create a functioning early American national government.” That narrowing might work fine in theory, but its practitioners all too often merely begin by ignoring the arguments from morality and principle. They usually end by claiming that such arguments don’t even exist. In this case, King plainly says that “he could so little persuade himself of the rectitude of [the slave trade], that he was not sure he could assent to it under any circumstances.” Apparently ignoring or misunderstanding the meaning of rectitude, Van Cleve asserts that “King’s opposition on the slave-trade issue was not framed primarily in moral or religious terms, but was based instead on prudential arguments.” By ignoring statements of principle such as were made by Framers like King, Van Cleve concludes that his “approach strongly suggests that the Northern states were not interested in trying to prohibit the slave trade in the abstract.” That contention is plainly untrue, as well as cryptic. Just what does “prohibiting the slave trade in the abstract” even mean?